Tag Archives: Proverbs

Sunday, August 16th

TWELFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Proverbs 9:1-6
Psalm 34:9-14
Ephesians 5:15-20
John 6:51-58

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Ever-loving God, your Son gives himself as living bread for the life of the world. Fill us with such a knowledge of his presence that we may be strengthened and sustained by his risen life to serve you continually, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

I have never been a fan of “home schooling.” That is partly because I believe one important objective of education is training children to live in and take responsibility for the larger society. Public schools are and should be places where children are confronted with people expressing ideas, holding opinions and practicing beliefs that are different from their own precisely because ours is a nation founded on the belief that such differing folk can nevertheless work together for the common good. I must also confess that my skepticism toward home schooling has been reinforced by many of its proponents whose fear, loathing and distrust of the larger society, often supported by outlandish conspiracy theories, sometimes borders on paranoia. The belief that our public schools are the agents of some nefarious plot to undermine religion, family values and promote moral anarchy strikes me as, well, a little crazy. What sort of child emerges from an isolated family unit where s/he is taught to fear and distrust the civil institutions that make our common life as a people possible?

Yet some recent reflections shared by home schooler Paisley Hillegeist in a recent issue of Plough Quarterly have given me pause. Ms. Hillegeist is no conspiracy theorist, nor does she view the public school system as the dark side of the force. She is, however, concerned about the carnivorous environment existing in middle and high schools. Bullying, drug abuse, sexual exploitation are recurring problems within the student population that she feels the schools are finding difficult to address effectively. These concerns, however, are not the primary reasons for Ms. Hillegeist’s decision to home school her children. She points out that she is able to shape her curriculum to the needs of her children in a way that would be nearly impossible in a class of thirty students. She is able to integrate the disciplines of prayer, worship and service into the children’s daily routine. Moreover, academic learning can be integrated with daily life. “We learn life skills together. How do you balance a checkbook? Mail a package? Do the laundry? Shop for the best deals? Build a chicken coop? Butcher turkeys? All this is part of our classroom.” “Why I Homeschool,” Plough Quarterly, Winter 2015, No. 3 (c. 2014 by Plough Publishing House) p. 35.  Most impressive, however, is Ms. Hillegeist’s insistence that “character comes first.” Ibid. More important than what her children may end up doing in life is who they become. “I believe with all my heart,” she says, “that the most powerful good I can bring to my community is to raise my own kids in the way that will best help them to become the men and women that God has created them to be.” Ibid. Education is not all about knowledge. It is chiefly about wisdom.

That, I believe, is what our modern approaches to education so often lack. Our assumption seems to be that education serves the needs of the labor market which, in turn, serves the profit generating, corporate interests of Wall Street. Nothing illustrates this trend better than the so called “Common Core Initiative.” According to its website:

“State education chiefs and governors in 48 states came together to develop the Common Core, a set of clear college- and career-ready standards for kindergarten through 12th grade in English language arts/literacy and mathematics. Today, 43 states have voluntarily adopted and are working to implement the standards, which are designed to ensure that students graduating from high school are prepared to take credit bearing introductory courses in two- or four-year college programs or enter the workforce.”

It is important to add that, despite any flowery policy language to the contrary, the two or four year college programs are likewise designed to integrate their graduates into the workforce, albeit at a higher level. Education is all market driven. It consists in cramming the heads of young people full of knowledge that will make them profitable. That is why programs like music and art are always the first to hit the cutting room floor when public school revenue drops. Multinational corporations can hardly expect to turn a profit through county libraries, municipal orchestras or community theater. Unless you are a child prodigy, you might as well not bother pursuing an education in the fine arts. There is no market for that sort of thing. Is it any wonder, then, that kids fail to empathize with each other when they are treated like machine parts? Is it any wonder that they deaden the pain of suppressing their humanity with illicit drugs? Can you blame them for making self-destructive decisions when they are supplied with knowledge, but left unschooled in wisdom?

The scripture lessons for this week have much to say about wisdom. Our lesson from the Book of Proverbs invites us to feed ourselves with wisdom. The psalmist encourages us to pursue the wise practices of truthfulness and peacemaking. Paul urges us to walk wisely through a world in bondage to folly on the strength of prayer and song. Jesus is the very embodiment of wisdom calling us to internalize him by “eating his flesh” and “drinking his blood.”

Wisdom should never be confused with mere knowledge. Knowledge gives us power over things. Wisdom gives us power over ourselves. The same body of knowledge can enable us to make either vaccines or biological weapons. Wisdom teaches us to place knowledge in the service of life. Wisdom concerns not so much what we learn as how we are shaped by our learning. The mere acquisition of knowledge is not genuine education. Our children are not machines for programming to meet the needs of the labor market. They are unique children of God whose lives unfold like blossoms. Education seeks to nourish and strengthen them as they seek the mystery that is God’s purpose for them. I applaud Ms. Hillegeist for having the courage to say “no” to the dehumanizing and abusive values of late stage capitalism and having the courage to educate her children into character so that they might become wise as well as knowledgeable. That’s a gutsy choice that I admire-even if I cannot follow it in good conscience.

I am still not a supporter of home schooling. Though Ms. Hillegeist’s words and example have raised important questions and illuminated much that is wrong with our educational institutions in this country, I am not convinced that home schooling is the answer. My responsibility for education does not end with my own children and I cannot properly educate my children on my own. Love her or hate her, Hillary Clinton got it right on this point: it takes a village to raise a child. Together, we must all learn to educate our children to live wisely and well as they pursue the common good. To that end, can we as parents and teachers take back the education of our children? Can we make education serve our children rather than the needs of the market? Can we create space for interaction between the classroom, the family and the faith community? Can we educate children to become wise and compassionate as well as knowledgeable?

Proverbs 9:1-6

The Book of Proverbs, along with Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs and several of the Psalms constitutes a collection of works biblical scholars often refer to as “wisdom literature.”  “Wisdom,” loosely defined, is insight gained through life experience often expressed in short proverbial sayings. One such example is Proverbs 10:2, “Treasures gained by wickedness do not profit, but righteousness delivers from death.” This is true as far as it goes. How many wealthy and powerful people have been brought down by an insatiable desire for wealth that knows no moral or ethical boundaries! But is it always the case that ill-gotten gain leads to ruin? Is righteousness always rewarded? It didn’t turn out that way for Job. Furthermore, the “preacher” in Ecclesiastes has this to say: “There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy upon men: a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor so that he lacks nothing of all that he desires, yet God does not give him power to enjoy them, but a stranger enjoys them; this is vanity; it is a sore affliction.” Ecclesiastes 6:1-2. So which is true? Is it the proverb or the observation of the preacher?

The answer is that both utterances are true as far as they go, and they only go as far as the experiences of the people who make them. Human wisdom, though valuable and worth pursuing, is nevertheless incomplete, partial and subject to modification. It is true that righteousness and integrity can bring you respect and a good name in the community. But sometimes the cost of doing the right thing is the loss of friendship, respect and social standing. Wickedness often is its own punishment, but we also know of people who inflict all manner of pain on others and are never brought to justice. That is why it is best to take these utterances of human wisdom not as moral laws governing the universe, but as the experiences of individuals who have lived their lives in pursuit of understanding. Wisdom literature invites us to step into the shoes of people who have lived life under numerous circumstances and have each come to view it from their own perspectives. Think of wisdom sayings as portholes into reality. Because they are unique and different from our own perspectives, they enrich our understanding. Yet we dare not forget that, like all human perspectives, these sayings are limited to the experience of one individual. They do not take in all of reality. So it should not surprise us to find different and even conflicting expressions of learned wisdom. Biblical wisdom does not fit neatly into a unified system because, as the product of human experience, it is necessarily incomplete.

The Book of Proverbs is made up of four distinct collections of sayings. Book I (Proverbs 1:1-9:18) consists of extended discourses of warning and admonition that encourage the hearer to live piously, ethically and prudently. In two of these poems, wisdom is personified as a wise and beautiful woman. Proverbs 1:20-33 and Proverbs 8:1-36. Wisdom is similarly personified in today’s reading taken from this first book. Our lessson is part of a larger poem contrasting wisdom with folly. Proverbs 9:1-18.

Books II (Proverbs 10:1-22:16) and IV (Proverbs 25:1-29:7) are both attributed to King Solomon. They contain collections of maxims dealing mostly with virtues, vices and their consequences. Attribution to Solomon does not necessarily imply authorship. The identification might simply reflect the author’s/editor’s tribute to Solomon’s legendary wisdom. That said, I am not ready to dismiss the potential contribution of Solomon to either of these two books. Wisdom literature reaches “back into the earliest stages of Israel’s existence.” Crenshaw, J.L., Wisdom in the Old Testament, Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Volume, (c.1976, Abingdon). It was during the reign of Solomon that the Israelite monarchy reached the height of its international prominence. Solomon made treaties with Egypt and the Phoenician kingdoms, transacting commerce and forming military compacts. Cultural exchanges would have followed naturally and thus exposure to wisdom literature from these sources. The authors/editors of Proverbs may well have had access to collections of sayings from this ancient and illustrious period.

Book III (Proverbs 22:17-24:34; Proverbs 24:23-34; Proverbs 30:1-31:31) is a series of exhortations of Egyptian sages probably modeled on an ancient book of Egyptian wisdom entitled “The Instruction of Amen-em-ope.” These sayings may date back to the time of David and Solomon and so could have come into the hands of royal scribes through the cultural exchanges with Egypt previously discussed. The final editor fused all four of these books into one, attributing them all to Solomon. Proverbs 1:1. For more on this marvelous book of the Bible, see Summary Article by James Limburg, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, M.N.

In our lesson we read that wisdom has “slaughtered her beasts, she has mixed wine, she has sent out her maids to call from the highest places, ‘Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!’ To him who is without sense, ‘Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.’” Vss. 4-5. Perhaps Jesus had this saying in mind when he told his parable of the unresponsive guests invited to the wedding feast. Matthew 22:1-10; Luke 14:15-24. To turn away from wisdom’s feast of learning is foolish. How much more so to snub an invitation to the messianic banquet! The reading also underscores the importance of eating that is far from simply metaphorical. Most people in the ancient near east were always just a bad harvest away from starvation. Eating well is a mark of wellbeing as Jesus’ discourse throughout chapter 6 has been demonstrating.

“Leave simpleness and live and walk in the way of insight.” Vs. 6. Simplicity is often portrayed as a virtue: “Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free…” says the old Shaker hymn. But there is a dangerous simplicity that seeks to eliminate all nuance and ambiguity. There is a simplicity that prefers clearly drawn lines between good and evil, right and wrong, friend and enemy, insider and outsider. The dangerous polarization we are witnessing in our civil discourse these days is a good example of where such simplicity leads us. Insight recognizes the shades of gray inhabiting the vast no-man’s land between the lines of combat. Insight makes us mindful of our limitations, blind spots and inherited prejudices that distort our thinking. Insight understands that every event, every conflict and every spoken word is seen, heard and processed differently by each individual person. Insight knows that listening is the most important communication skill we will ever develop.

Psalm 34:9-14

These verses constitute the second half of the psalm from last Sunday. For my observations on the psalmist’s style and the psalm’s literary characteristics, see the post for Sunday, August 9, 2015.

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” says the psalmist in Psalm 111:10. Not surprisingly, then, the psalmist in our psalm for this Sunday calls us to learn the fear of the Lord. Vs. 11. “What man is there who desires life, and covets many days, that he may enjoy good?…Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.” Vss. 12-13. Does good conduct lead to a long and satisfying life? Often, but not always. Again, this is the experience of the psalmist. It is also my own experience. Let me be clear about this. I have not always been so very successful in departing from evil and doing good or seeking peace. But when I am, I discover that life is better. I am much happier when I am not pursuing a zero sum game, win at all costs strategy, but looking instead beyond the immediate conflicts I have with people to the people themselves and working toward building relationships of trust. That makes it possible to find win/wins solutions.

Still, in all honesty, that has not always been my experience. Sometimes people take advantage of my trust and return my offer of friendship with hostility. The psalmist appears to have had similar experiences. He or she goes on to say in verses not included in our reading, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous…”  Vs. 19. Clearly, righteousness does not immunize one against the slings and arrows of living in a world filled with cruelty and injustice. Indeed, righteous conduct sometimes invites hostility. The righteous are sometimes “brokenhearted” and “crushed in spirit.” Vs. 18. Nevertheless, the psalmist reminds us that even at these times “the Lord is near.” Vs. 18.

How is it possible to keep one’s tongue from evil and one’s lips from speaking deceit? Vss. 13. This warning echoes Paul’s admonition from Ephesians last week to put aside all falsehood and speak the truth. Ephesians 4:25. There is much deceit taking place, not the least of it within ourselves. We have an enormous capacity for self-justification, blaming, scapegoating and excuse making that colors the way we understand everything and everyone around us. This is why we need to be in a community dedicated to speaking truthfully. We need each other to overcome our own self-deception. Unless that is happening, we cannot hope to speak convincingly to the world around us.

Ephesians 5:15-20

Once again, I refer you to my post of Sunday, July 12, 2015 for general comments about the Letter to the Ephesians. In our lesson for this Sunday, Paul admonishes us to “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.” Vs. 15. This usage of “walk” is found throughout Ephesians. In Ephesians 2:2 Paul reminds his readers that, prior to their baptism into Christ, they “walked” in sin following the course of this world (N.B. NRSV translates “walked” as “lived”). But now, as Christ’s workmanship, they “walk” in the “good works” for which they were created. Ephesians 2:10.  In chapter 5 we find the admonition to walk at three points. First Paul urges us to “walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” Ephesians 5:2. (Again, NRSV uses “live” instead of “walk”). Next, Paul tells his readers that, having been brought out of darkness into the light, they must walk as “children of the light.” Ephesians 5:8. (Again, NRSV renders “walk” as “live”). So in today’s lesson we are urged to walk as “wise” people. Vs. 15. (Ever consistently if not aptly, NRSV employs “live”).

I am not ordinarily disposed to quibble with the NRSV. It is by far one of the most accurate and readable translations of the Scriptures available in the English language. But in rendering the Greek word “walk” or “peripdateo” as simply to “live,” the translators have done us a disservice. The Greek carries with it the sense of “walking after” taken from the ancient practice of instruction under which young persons studying with a particular teacher followed after that teacher. Paul intersperses this expression with “sit” (Ephesians 1:20; Ephesians 2:6) which in Hebrew usage is also a posture of learning. E.g., Luke 10:39; Acts 8:31. For Paul in Ephesians (in the Scriptures as a whole, for that matter), wisdom is not understood as knowledge to be obtained, but as a habit of the heart to be learned, practiced and grown into. It is not merely absorbed into memory from the written page, but taught through the example of a mentor whose living relationship to his/her disciple gives shape to his/her teaching.

So too, Paul urges us to “understand what the will of the Lord is.” Vs. 17. That is a tall order. It isn’t that I don’t know generally what God requires. The problem arises when I try to understand what God requires of me in the minutia of my day to day life. If God is not active there, then God’s will is largely irrelevant. Oddly enough, we are not given much guidance here. We are warned against drunkenness-that clearly will not get us to an understanding of God’s will for us. Vs. 18. But when it comes specifically to figuring out God’s will, we are told simply to be filled with the Holy Spirit-and to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Vss. 18-19. Yet maybe the apostle is on to something here. There is nothing like singing to create a sense of community and shared vision. Other than the national anthem sung at sports events, I cannot think of any situation in our culture except worship where people still sing together. There is something about singing that opens a person’s imagination to a broader view of things. A hymn is sort of like a snowball. The more you sing it at different times and places in your life, the more meaning it accumulates. I suspect that for all of us there is a hymn that makes us tear up, a song that helps us visualize the mysteries of faith that escape conceptualization. I think that the practice of singing our faith together helps us to internalize that faith and so also create space for the Spirit of God to begin working out God’s intent for us. We don’t begin by trying to figure out God’s will and then trying to do it. Rather, we begin with worship. Gradually, we begin to recognize God’s will unfolding in our lives after it has seeped into our bones through the practices of worship, singing, prayer, generosity and hospitality.

John 6:51-58

I have to confess that my initial reaction to this section of John is, “Yuck!”  The image of someone eating flesh and drinking blood, even when understood metaphorically, is distasteful to put it mildly. And clearly, Jesus is not speaking metaphorically. This conversation started out with Jesus providing bread to five thousand people who proceeded to eat, chew and swallow it. Jesus then identifies himself as the bread of life, that which sustains human existence. But lest we get too comfortable with this assertion as a benign figure of speech, Jesus drives it home with some very graphic language: “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you…” Vs. 53. The bread of life Jesus offers comes at the cost of his own death at the very hands of those he came to feed. Moreover, the way to eternal life is through sharing in Jesus’ suffering and death. The crowd which initially sought Jesus with enthusiasm thinking that they had found an ATM with a limitless supply of bread, now begins to turn on Jesus. How can Jesus’ flesh satisfy their hunger? How can his blood satisfy their thirst? Vs. 52. They want desperately to turn the conversation back to plain old bread. But Jesus will not let them off the hook. “The bread you are seeking,” says Jesus, “won’t satisfy your hunger.” Even the manna God provided for Israel in the wilderness could not satisfy the peoples’ deepest need. John 6:49. What the people needed and what we need is a restored relationship with our Heavenly Father. Reconciliation requires risk, sacrifice and even loss of life. Not surprisingly, Jesus paid with his life for the reconciliation he offers our troubled and warring world. The early Christian martyrs knew that witnessing to the reconciliation achieved in Jesus leads to persecution. The price of pursuing peace and reconciliation was death for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This living bread, so freely and generously shared with us, comes at a terrible cost.

It is also worth noting that, for John, eternal life is more than just living forever and it does not begin sometime in the distant future. Living eternally means doing the things that matter eternally. That is what Jesus’ “signs” are all about. Jesus shares his bread with a hungry crowd; Jesus provides wine in abundance for a peasant wedding; Jesus speaks with a Samaritan woman-a bitter enemy of his people; Jesus heals a cripple who is living on the fringe of the fringe; Jesus opens the eyes of a man born blind and deemed under the curse of God. These are signs not because they are miracles, but because they show the miraculous power of God turning toward the poor, the outcast and the rejected. What matters eternally is how we treat those deemed the least of all people.

These verses resonate, I believe, with our Lutheran insistence that the Eucharistic bread and wine are not figuratively, metaphorically or symbolically Christ’s Body, but truly and actually the Body and Blood of Christ. This is so because unless the resurrected Christ is present, there is no Church. But because the bread and wine on our altar is the Body and Blood of Christ and because we are what we eat, the congregation eating this food is likewise the Body of the Resurrected Christ in the world today. I have always found it interesting that John’s gospel does not end with Jesus sending his disciples out to proclaim the gospel or with Jesus ascending to the right hand of God. John’s gospel ends the way the other gospels begin: with the disciples leaving their nets and their boat to follow after Jesus. The last words spoken by Jesus to his disciples in the Gospel of John are “follow me.” John 21:19. It is as though John simply cannot conceive of the church without the presence of its resurrected Lord.

Sunday, October 6th

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Habakkuk 1:1–4; 2:1–4
Psalm 37:1–9
2 Timothy 1:1–14
Luke 17:5–10

Prayer of the Day: Benevolent, merciful God: When we are empty, fill us. When we are weak in faith, strengthen us. When we are cold in love, warm us, that with fervor we may love our neighbors and serve them for the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

There are times when I wish I had faith strong enough not to believe in Jesus. Sometimes I think that if I could just convince myself that Christ did not rise from death, that it all ended at the cross and that compassion, kindness and mercy died there too, I would have an easier time digesting the news. I would probably still find it difficult to live in a world where children are slaughtered with poison gas and assault rifles. But I would know better than to be shocked or to hope for anything better. It would not be my problem. I could shrug my shoulders, assure myself that there is nothing I can do about it, pour myself a drink and switch the channel to Comedy Central. I cannot do that, however, because I do believe that God raised Jesus from death. My heart and mind have been so thoroughly shaped by the narrative of Jesus’ faithful life, obedient death and glorious resurrection that I am compelled to challenge the darkness and seek in the most tragic events the redeeming presence of God in Christ reconciling the world to himself.

The prophet Habakkuk seems to be having a similar problem. His heart and mind have been shaped by the narrative of the Exodus and the many stories, hymns and teachings about this marvelous God who, transcendent and almighty as he is, stoops to save the poor, oppressed and despairing. Living as he did during the twilight years of David’s kingdom and at the height of Babylonian power, the prophet saw precious little evidence of salvation. The events taking place all around him were at variance with the Exodus narrative and the prophet cannot understand why. “Why do you make me see wrongs and look upon trouble?” “The law is slacked and justice never goes forth.” Habakkuk 1:3-4.

These are not the words of a doubter or an unbeliever expressing his personal disillusionment with religion to whoever might be listening. Understand that Habakkuk is not wrestling with that tired old whine, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” He is not so simple minded as all that. Habakkuk knows well enough that human life has its limits; that it is a gift we hold only for a little while and we don’t get to complain that the life we have is shorter, harder or more difficult than what seems to us the case for someone else. He also knows that he and his people are not innocent bystanders. They have been sinful and unfaithful to the covenants God made with them. He is aware that his people’s suffering has been in no small part their own doing. But Habakkuk still believes that, however sinful he and his people might be, God must nevertheless be true to God’s self. So his are the protests of a believer addressed to God and calling God to account. It is because Habakkuk refuses to let go of his faith, refuses to give up on God’s promises and believes that his prayers are heard that he speaks so forcefully to his God.

In the most basic sense, God does not owe anybody anything. We would have no basis to call upon God or expect any help from God except for the fact that God entered into human history and made some very specific promises to Israel. Israel, then, has a unique claim upon God. Israel is in a position to call God to account, to insist that God honor his promises. So, too, believers in Jesus who come into that covenant relationship through the waters of baptism have grounds to cry out to this God and insist that he honor his promise to wipe out their sins, give them a clean heart and a new start. We have no choice but to believe that God is never closer to us than when we are ready to cry out, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” We have no choice but to cry out to God against the atrocious suffering, injustice and violence we witness. Such forwardness is not disrespect, nor does it reflect doubt or unbelief. To the contrary, it demonstrates the boldest possible act of faith in the God who is at work in the darkest prison cell, the most violent neighborhood and the most deeply conflicted areas of the world making peace through the blood of his cross.

Habakkuk 1:1–4; 2:1–4

As I said in the opening remarks, the prophet Habakkuk lived and preached during the Babylonian period of domination over the Southern Kingdom of Judah. We know very little about him. Though a prophet by the name of Habakkuk appears in the apocryphal book of Bel and the Dragon, it is unlikely that there is any historical or even literary connection.  Moreover, the prophet’s work appears to be a compilation of materials from different periods in Israel’s history, but which share a common theme. Thus, the prophet might be more an “editorial artist” than an original preacher.

Though the notes in my study Bible identify Habakkuk’s theme as “theodicy,” or “justifying the ways of God,” I don’t believe that is really the prophet’s concern here. This is not a dissertation on “the problem of human suffering.” It is, as I said before, a passionate plea from a person of faith calling upon his God to honor the covenant promises made to Israel. The common lectionary has again done a fine hack job on this text, omitting the sections that help us place the words of Habakkuk in context. In verses 5-11 we read of how the prophet attributes to God the raising up of the “Chaldeans,” another term for the Babylonians.

Look at the nations, and see!
Be astonished! Be astounded!
For a work is being done in your days
that you would not believe if you were told.
6 For I am rousing the Chaldeans,
that fierce and impetuous nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth
to seize dwellings not their own.
7 Dread and fearsome are they;
their justice and dignity proceed from themselves.
8 Their horses are swifter than leopards,
more menacing than wolves at dusk;
their horses charge.
Their horsemen come from far away;
they fly like an eagle swift to devour.
9 They all come for violence,
with faces pressing* forward;
they gather captives like sand.
10 At kings they scoff,
and of rulers they make sport.
They laugh at every fortress,
and heap up earth to take it.
11 Then they sweep by like the wind;
they transgress and become guilty;
their own might is their god!

Habakkuk 1:5-11. After describing the violence, cruelty and injustice of the Babylonian invaders, Habakkuk appeals to the Lord:

Are you not from of old,
O Lord my God, my Holy One?
You* shall not die.
O Lord, you have marked them for judgement;
and you, O Rock, have established them for punishment.
13 Your eyes are too pure to behold evil,
and you cannot look on wrongdoing;
why do you look on the treacherous,
and are silent when the wicked swallow
those more righteous than they?
14 You have made people like the fish of the sea,
like crawling things that have no ruler.

Habakkuk 1:12-14.

God’s answer finally comes in the second chapter. “Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.” Habakkuk 2:4. Contrary to Habakkuk’s hopes, this time of trouble, violence and injustice is to continue for an indefinite though surely finite period. Until relief in the form of God’s salvation comes-and it will come-the just must live by faith. That is, they must continue to live justly in an unjust world whether their justice and righteousness bear fruit or not. Faithfulness, not tangible success, is required.

This is a hard word for our culture which is used to seeing conflicts resolved within the space of an hour, less the commercials. But life is not like TV. It plods from one unresolved conflict to the next. Most likely, we will not see the fulfillment of all our hopes within our lifetimes. We will likely die without ever seeing the fruits of our acts of mercy and kindness. But that does not matter. “For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.” Habakkuk 2:3.

Psalm 37:1–9

This psalm is one of the acrostic psalms, meaning that the first word of the first strophe begins with the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet. The first word of the second strophe begins with the second letter and so on through the alphabet. In addition to assisting a new reader in learning her ABCs, this style of composition assists in memorization of the psalm. Memorization is critical in a culture where the vast majority lack reading skills and books are readily available only to priests.

The psalm reads more like a collection of wisdom proverbs, such as found in the Book of Proverbs, than a hymn or a prayer. The unifying theme is trust in God and in God’s providential rule. Throughout the psalm we find assurances that God ultimately rewards faithful behavior and punishes wickedness though, as Habakkuk also had to learn, such justice is not always executed as swiftly and clearly as we might hope. So the psalmist warns his hearers: “Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers…” Psalm 37:1. Given the style and content of the psalm, most scholars date its composition as having taken place relatively later in Israel’s history, probably after the Babylonian Exile.

This psalm calls for patience in the face of wrongdoing and confidence in God to accomplish justice. The psalmist warns against “stewing” over the seeming success of the wicked and becoming cynical about life. Rather than obsessing over whether the wicked are properly punished, the righteous person should focus upon his own conduct, committing his way to the Lord. Vs. 5. The righteous person need not take matters of justice into his or her own hands. God, who sees all hearts and knows all circumstances, is in a much better position to determine what is actually just and how justice should be carried out.

Of course, this confidence in divine justice is easier to maintain in times of relative peace and stability where a semblance of justice has a chance of prevailing. Habakkuk, who lived in the shadow of war and societal breakdown, found it far more difficult to take the confident view expressed by the psalmist. Once again, we do well to remember that wisdom sayings such as those found in the psalm offer us a porthole view into reality which may well be true and insightful as far as it goes. Still, a porthole’s view is limited and there are other portholes through which the world must be examined if we are to arrive at a balanced understanding. Wisdom literature invites us to glimpse the world through as many portholes as possible.

2 Timothy 1:1–14

For my views on authorship of this and the other two pastoral epistles (I Timothy and Titus), see my post on the lessons from Sunday, September 15th.

This second letter addressed to Timothy from the Apostle Paul, now imprisoned at Rome, is an admonition for Timothy to stand firm against a number of false teachings that have crept into the church. The primary purpose of the letter, however, appears to be that of summoning Timothy to come and assist Paul in his imprisonment. II Timothy 4:9-13. At first blush, it appears that Timothy was a third generation Christian whose grandmother and mother were also believers. It is just as likely, though, that both mother and grandmother were converted at the same time through missionaries at Lystra. Perhaps Timothy was also baptized at that time or shortly thereafter. In any case, the letter reflects a level of intimacy between the Apostle and his fellow worker.

There is a reference here to the “laying on of hands” conferring a “gift” which Timothy is encouraged to “rekindle.” Vs. 6. Is this a reference to ordination? Or is it an aspect of the baptismal rite? There is support for either proposition, but not enough evidence to make decisive assertions. Like the other pastorals, this letter affirms the good news of salvation through grace in Jesus Christ apart from works. Vs. 9.

Timothy is encouraged to guard the good treasure that has been entrusted to him. That good treasure is “the sound teaching” Timothy has received from Paul. Clearly, the Apostle is concerned that the gospel is in danger of distortion or loss. We can see here a challenge that will confront the church in every age: How to preserve the integrity of the good news from generation to generation while at the same time addressing it to the ever changing circumstances of the world for which it is sent. Obviously, there is a risk involved whenever we seek to make Jesus known to an ever changing cultural context. The temptation is to make Jesus attractive, appealing and likable. The consequence is a portrait of Jesus created in our own image and likeness, a Jesus that fits nicely into our societal routine, but never gets in the way, never challenges us or calls us to repentance. In short, we run the risk of idolatry.

But there is also danger in trying to preserve the proclamation of Jesus by enshrining him in unbending theological orthodoxy or “timeless” liturgical practices. Sometimes heresy takes the form of correct expressions of the truth that have been held onto for too long. The words may not change, but their meanings do. The language of our faith can easily get hijacked, twisted around and used to express all manner of false and misleading notions if we are not vigilant about reexamining and reinterpreting it faithfully to each age. For example, scholars have noted that the word “faith” as used in this letter to Timothy often refers to a body of teaching rather than simple trust in God’s promises as used by Paul in letters such as Romans and Galatians. Whether Paul in his later years saw the need to expand his working definition of the term “faith” to meet the needs and concerns of the church or whether a disciple of Paul writing in Paul’s name expanded on the term, the same point is illustrated. The church’s teaching must be as flexible as the culture to which it speaks while remaining faithfully anchored in the apostolic witness to Jesus.

Luke 17:5–10

The disciples got it half right. When you need faith, Jesus is where you go. Their problem is that they did not understand faith. They assumed that faith is like a muscle; something you are born with and need to develop. They were looking for a spiritual exercise regimen (or more likely a shot of faith enhancing steroids) to improve their inborn faith. But faith is not a virtue or a human quality with which we are born or can produce in ourselves. It is a gift. As such, it is never a matter of “more or less.” It is like being pregnant. You are or are not. The same is true for faith. You have it or you don’t. Furthermore, if you have it, that is only because the Holy Spirit has given birth to it and brought it to fruition in your heart. The disciples do not need more faith. They need faith, period.

Faith is no longer faith when it becomes a work, a condition we need to satisfy before God will accept us. The worst advice you can give someone plagued by doubt is to say, “Just have faith.” That is like telling a starving child in Somalia, “You really should eat more!” The good news about Jesus is not that our faith saves us, but that God’s faithfulness saves faithless people like us. When that word is proclaimed in its fullness, faith follows. Strange as it may seem, faith begins at just the point where we realize we don’t have it and cannot ever hope to generate it on our own.

The parable about the servants is simply the flip side of faith. Recognizing that faith is a gift and that whatever is done from faith is finally God’s own work removes all grounds for “boasting,” as Saint Paul would say. Romans 3:27-29. For Luke, faith is never merely conceptual. John the Baptist made clear in his preaching that repentance involved bread and butter compassion, such as sharing food and clothing with neighbors in need, dealing honestly and fairly in a culture of greed and exploitation. Luke 3:10-14. Discipleship described in Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain is the shape of faith. Yet precisely because faith is a gift, the “fruits” of repentance and the “works” of faith are not the works of the disciple. They are solely the works of the Holy Spirit and, as such, they do not earn the disciple any right to praise or recognition. The most that can ever be said of a disciple is that, through the work of the Holy Spirit, s/he has become what God the Father created him or her to be from the beginning.

This lesson is a needed corrective for a culture obsessed with self esteem. Don’t misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that we ought to be self haters or become obsessed with our unworthiness. I do believe, nonetheless, that there is just as great a danger in becoming overly obsessed with having our accomplishments valued and recognized. I wonder, when did it become mandatory that everyone be “special”? When did we decide that “average” is not good enough? When did we get this idea that we are supposed to “amount to something,” and that the something to which we must amount is necessarily a cut above everyone else: a high GPA, prestigious college, six figure salary, seven figure home and children who achieve even higher in these categories? When did it become necessary to celebrate graduation from middle school, grade school and even kindergarten? This need to succeed and, more than that, have our success recognized starts to smell a lot like the religion of salvation by good works against which Paul and Martin Luther preached. It is a secularized version of “works righteousness” focused on proving my self worth to myself alone. Whether religious or secular, a life turned in upon itself leads just as surely to emptiness and despair.

Luke’s gospel would have us know that there is no reward in seeking self esteem through recognition-whether it be through rigorous religious observance or social/financial success. God does not value either sort of achievement. Instead, God values trust in his promises, faithful obedience to his reign and love for the neighbor. These practices might not win you any recognition, but that does not matter. Disciples know that they are not entitled to recognition anyway. They discover instead the joy and freedom of living life without the need for recognition from any quarter.